11/22/2011 02:45 EST | Updated 01/22/2012 05:12 EST

Sequestering U.S.-Canadian Relations

If the U.S Congress' does not reach a deal to lift the debt ceiling once more before the 2012 elections, the automatic budget cuts to defense that would follow could have a serious impact on agreements and relations with Canada.

Getty Images

Lifting the U.S. debt ceiling is necessary once more before the 2012 elections. When Congress struck a deal to raise it once in 2011, they empowered a super committee of members of the House and Senate to identify additional cuts of $1.2 trillion as a precondition for raising the debt ceiling again.

Without a deal in the super committee, Congress designed a process of "sequestration" that would produce automatic budget cuts, 50 per cent of which would come from non-defence spending and 50 per cent that would come from the defence side of the budget.

At the same time, the Congress redefined "defence" spending to include an array of national security line items, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Cuts could range from two to five per cent of spending across the board, and in particular cases may be even heavier.

If a deal is not reached, savings sequestered from these departments and agencies could have an impact on relations with Canada. For example:

• Negotiations of the U.S.-Canada Beyond the Border Working Group, which cost taxpayer money through staff salaries and occasional travel, could be deferred or slowed.

• Pilot projects and local initiatives for border cooperation, from pre-clearance to reverse inspection, could be placed on hold.

• U.S. purchases of F-35 fighter jets, already under question, could be further deferred or even cancelled by the Department of Defense, putting new pressure on Canada's plans to purchase 65 of these aircraft.

• Integrated Border Enforcement Teams and joint-investigations could find themselves severely resource-constrained

• Funds for border-related infrastructure could be put on hold until after the election, resulting in additional delays to projects such as the New International Trade Crossing between Windsor and Detroit to be postponed again

• U.S. foreign assistance to countries of concern to Canada -- often made in cooperation with Canada -- could be trimmed or cut altogether, affecting places such as Haiti and Afghanistan and leading recipient countries to turn to Canada for more help.

What can Canada do about any of this? On first glance, not much: the decisions are up to Congress, and the U.S. is a sovereign power.

And yet Canadian officials, both federal and provincial, can and should begin preparing for the coming austerity. Now is the time to reach out to counterparts for reassurance that they will have the resources to sustain engagement and cooperative initiatives. As cuts begin to be identified, they can stress to senior Obama administration decision makers that the cuts would be damaging -- or in some cases, Canadians may wish to suggest cost-sharing measures to keep critical conversations and joint-efforts going.

Ultimately, it may not be possible to ring fence everything that matters in the U.S.-Canadian relationship from cuts. Surely it will be a long, strange journey from now until November 2012.